Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ready to rule Iraq

The 47-year-old Iraqi leader of the Sadrist movement has changed his mind and will run in the 10 October elections
AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - El boicot de la enigmática figura religiosa y política es un golpe a los planes electorales del primer ministro Mustafa al-Kadhemi, que había convocado la votación anticipada en respuesta a las demandas de los activistas prodemocráticos

AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE  -   The boycott by the enigmatic religious and political figure is a blow to the election plans of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, who had called the early vote in response to the demands of pro-democracy activists

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr has reversed his decision to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October. The influential cleric reversed last month's decision to boycott Iraq's October parliamentary elections and announced that he will run in the polls as one of the favourites. Al-Sadr led the Sairun political coalition in the 2018 elections, winning 54 seats out of 329. 

The influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has also been calling for the expulsion of US troops from Iraq and maintaining his logical fraternal ties with Iran, the visible head of the Shia branch of Islam in the Middle East. His influence is based on his ability to agitate. At 47 years old, the Shiite cleric heads the Sadrist movement, a diffuse conglomerate that includes in its orbit from the parliamentary bloc Al Ahrar (which considers him its spiritual leader) to a militia (the theoretically disbanded Mahdi Army reborn as the Peace Brigades after the emergence of Daesh), through an extensive network of charitable organisations, which cover the absence of the state among the disinherited Shiites and which are at the origin of his popularity.

PHOTO/REUTERS - Un hombre iraquí recibe su nuevo carné de votante en un centro de la Alta Comisión Electoral Independiente en Bagdad, Irak, el 20 de enero de 2021
PHOTO/REUTERS - An Iraqi man receives his new voter card at an Independent High Electoral Commission centre in Baghdad, Iraq, January 20, 2021.

The son and nephew of two revered ayatollahs assassinated by Saddam, Al Sadr took advantage of the prestige of his lineage and acted swiftly after the fall of the dictatorship. He used the charitable networks established by his father to set up a system of social services, along the lines of that run by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, in one of Baghdad's poorest Shi'a suburbs, Saddam City. Its grateful inhabitants renamed it Sadr City. He was also quick to appoint imams to mosques deserted by clerics sympathetic to the deposed regime, enabling him to expand his bases and recruit militiamen.

It was precisely these networks of assistance, established by his father during the years of international sanctions, that served as the basis for the movement he launched after the US invasion, which particularly resonated with the most disadvantaged Shiites. His highly populist sermons in accessible language encouraged the anti-American sentiment that the occupation of the country generated (but without which he would hardly have been able to express himself freely; his father and an uncle, both prominent ayatollahs, were assassinated by the dictator).

Al-Sadr, leader of the political coalition most represented in Iraq's parliament, had been supporting the Iraqi population's protests since October 2020, but after the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at the hands of the US, things changed. The American giant carried out a drone operation in the vicinity of Baghdad airport against the head of the Quds Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (the elite corps of the Persian army), in which he and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, vice-president of the Shiite armed groups Popular Mobilisation Forces, were killed. This action logically led to the absolute anger of the Shiite community in Iraq. 

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   El clérigo chií iraquí Muqtada al-Sadr, : Sadr dijo que no participará en las elecciones parlamentarias previstas para octubre y que retirará su apoyo a cualquier partido
PHOTO/REUTERS - Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr : Sadr said he will not participate in the parliamentary elections scheduled for October and will withdraw his support from any party.

After this episode, Al-Sadr called for a large demonstration against the presence of foreign troops in the country, but some of his collaborators accused demonstrators of the permanent protest of trying to boycott his march. The cleric then decided to withdraw his support for the demonstrations and subsequently even called on his followers to help the police restore normality, leading to incidents that left dozens injured in Baghdad and at least seven dead in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. 

This was one of the motivations that led a large part of the population to demonstrate against the Iraqi leaders, who were accused of being subservient to the Persian will and also of yielding to US interests in the region. It was his rejection of the US occupation that marked the difference between him and the rest of Iraq's politicians, recently returned from exile thanks to the intervention.

In recent years Iraq has become a battleground where US-Iranian rivalry has been at its most intense. Relations between Washington and Badgad are not at their best. In fact, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the presence of US troops in the country has not convinced either the population or the country's leaders.

AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - Manifestantes iraquíes se reúnen en la plaza Tahrir de la capital, Bagdad, el 20 de diciembre de 2019 durante las continuas protestas contra el Gobierno
AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE - Iraqi protesters gather in Tahrir Square in the capital Baghdad on December 20, 2019 during ongoing anti-government protests.

Currently, since 2014, the United States has maintained around 2,500 soldiers as part of an international coalition aimed at fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria. A presence that has become somewhat uncomfortable in recent years for the Baghdad government, under great pressure from the most extremist Shiite militias that want US troops to disappear,  It has also been greatly clouded by the assassination of senior Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad's international airport, which led the Iraqi Council of Representatives two days later to pass a non-binding resolution calling for an end to the US military presence in Iraq. 

With legislative elections two months away, the head of the Iraqi government hopes to regain some influence over the powerful pro-Iranian factions, which are very hostile to the US presence. The announcement of the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraqi soil would be a victory for the Iraqi prime minister, who would thus satisfy the most extremist Shiite factions and pave the way for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 10 October.